Sanctions hurting pediatric heart patients in Syria

Pope leads general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis calling for world peace and a negotiated solution to the “human tragedy” unfolding in Syria. (CNS photo by Paul Haring) (Sept. 18, 2013)

VATICAN CITY — Only dialogue and negotiations can repair “the human tragedy” that continues to unfold in Syria, Pope Francis said today at his weekly general audience.

He urged people to continue to pray for peace in the world and to find “diplomatic and political solutions” to the wars raging worldwide.

While a U.S. strike on Syria is no longer imminent, the situation there remains dire as sanctions and shortages can wreak just as much havoc as bombs and gunfire.

One example is the impact on medical care. The only pediatric clinic specializing in cardiac surgery in all of Syria has launched an urgent appeal for help. The Damascus-based clinic is luckily in the city’s “green zone,” safe from the fighting, but has been rendered nearly useless because of severe shortages of supplies and funds.

There is a waiting list of 3,000 to 4,000 children who need the clinic’s care, Dr. Youssef Tammam, a pediatric heart surgeon and head of the clinic, told Vatican Radio.

The center had been able to handle two to four operations daily, but now they can only do one a day. To put that in perspective: a child near the bottom of the list would have to wait 10 years for her turn, if she were even to survive that long.

Dr. Tammam told the radio they no longer have the drugs, supplies and money needed to keep up with the demand. He said they need help in collecting money and materials necessary for 200 children “because probably in two or three months we won’t have any needed supplies left to operate.”

The cardiac center in Syria was a special flagship project that garnered the support of the European Society of Cardiology. Set up in 2011, the center was meant to treat 1000 infants and children a year — still a small dent in the 3000 new cases reported there annually.

As The Lancet reported in 2010, the E.S.C. chose Syria because of what Claudia Florio, the wife of the then-E.S.C.’s president, saw there in 2008 (some three years before the conflict between rebels and government forces even began).

“There were hundreds of mothers and fathers with the babies in their arms, literally handing them to the doctors, and even to me, with hope and prayers in their eyes,” she says. …  “The doctors were deciding, according to clinical condition, who to operate on and who not to operate on. I realized that these decisions would lead to the life or death of the children waiting nearby.”

The project helped more than a dozen Syrian doctors get training for the center, Dr. Tammam said, but now the embargo, strict sanctions and severe shortages have meant the country’s only center has not only slipped back to square one, but risks closing for good.